Last Friday, March 27, Ministry of Culture and Heritage decided that non-daily newspapers and publications were not an essential service for the coronavirus Level-4 nationwide shutdown.
Without consultation, newspapers and magazines that didn't come out daily were taken off the media list of essential services, leaving many community-driven papers including the Wānaka Sun unable to be printed or distributed.
This was done in the name of safety, the government said. There was too much risk in their production, and the delivery to people's homes. And at worst, because they were supposedly not supplying vital, urgent information to the public.
The Free Speech Coalition came out blazing saying no High Court would uphold a bureaucrat deciding what media could or couldn't operate. This decision was made without any consultation, it said, and based on only daily newspapers and broadcast media being deemed 'essential'.
As I see it, at a time of emergency such as we are in now, no civilised society can justify the Government deciding what parts of the media are important and not important. The adage 'this is a dangerous precedent' is often overused, but in this case, it is true.
Assuming the smaller publications can take the same distance and health measures as the ones currently publishing, there is no justification in shutting them down. Its bollocks.
The media industry, including the Community Newspapers Association (CNA), pushed back hard on the ban, arguing community papers provided just the sort of advice and information needed for readers in a time of crisis. Many community papers have an online presence and would try to keep their readers informed via the internet. But the physical paper is considered to have a strong bond with older readers and in some districts those who cannot or do not receive broadband and therefore, a digital news service.
This decision made is probably the most significant in the lifetime of print news in this country. Even at times of war censorship, the Government didn't choose who could print and who couldn't. Monthly publications like North and South, the Listener, and community newspapers such as the Wānaka Sun serve a vital role in the community's conscience and holding leaders to account. That is just as important as daily news. These magazines and newspapers are functionally no different from the likes of music radio or entertainment television, which is allowed to continue broadcasting.
Then on Monday, the issue was discussed again by the cabinet coronavirus committee. Jacinda Ardern said at the daily briefing she expected to announce a decision on Tuesday, which would be contingent on publishers agreeing to safety issues for staff, work from home and hygiene practices. She acknowledged many people obtained vital local information from the community titles.
So watch this space….
Well hooray, yesterday, Tuesday. the government did an about-face.
It is “refining its coronavirus essential business guidance” to include the distribution of news publications for communities which are hard to reach.
The Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media, Kris Faafoi, said: “the move was in recognition of the importance for New Zealanders who might be harder to reach having access to news publications, which can share important up-to-date public health messaging during the coronavirus emergency.”
The guidance has expanded to cover news publications that serve a need for hard to reach rural communities, with reduced connectivity, a criteria into which the Wānaka Sun falls.
The government asks that if the publication can be provided by online means it should do so – the Wānaka Sun went online this week. But it understands there are remote communities unable to access up-to-date information by other means.
“The Government recognises that these were already difficult times for traditional media across the sector, even before coronavirus hit, and that restrictions which remain in place for other publications, such as non-daily magazines, are adding to their financial challenges,” said Faafoi.
Sadly the Wānaka Sun will not come out in print for a few weeks. The economics don’t make it possible. However it will be available online on: https://www.thewanakasun.co.nz/ or https://.facebook.com/WanakaSun/
Or if you would like an online version emailed to you contact email@example.com